Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Marrying Well: Stable Families, Economic Success, and Morality Tales

At the Commonweal blog right now, Eric Bugyis offers a valuable discussion of Jason DeParle's recent New York Times article which appears to show a correlation between higher income levels, higher marriage rates, and marital stability.  Research appears to indicate, that is, that couples whose income is higher, whose educational levels are higher, and whose social status is, as a result, also higher than the norm, tend to marry and stay married at higher rates than is the case at the bottom of the economic and educational ladder.  There, in fact, among what used to be called the "working classes," marriage is becoming more infrequent, as couples have children out of wedlock at higher and higher rates.

At his Daily Dish site yesterday, Andrew Sullivan helpfully reproduced a chart with statistical data supporting these conclusions, which was prepared by Bruce Western and Tracy Shollenberger and is also included in DeParle's article.   The chart is at the head of this posting.

As Bugyis's posting also notes, at the Mirror of Justice blog site, Rick Garnett turns the data into a morality tale: the data suggest, conservative interpreters want to argue, that entrée into the higher echelons of society and the economic system depends on the kind of sober, morally upright lifestyles that are contingent on marrying.  Marry well and for life, and you may well be rewarded, à la this fabular Calvinistic parable, by making it eventually.  God blesses those who do good (who are doing good since they are already the chosen of the Lord) and curses those who do ill (who are already among the unchosen, or why else would they have fallen to the bottom of society and succumbed to immorality?).

In Bugyis's view, this Calvinistic fable (my terms; he doesn't use them), which is deeply woven into the fabric of American society, is more than a little morally askew and more than a little fatuously self-congratulatory.  He writes:

It strikes me that stories like this one that look at trends in domestic life, which seem to be increasingly noting the decline of the “traditional family,” often serve as opportunities for those who have “done it right” to receive a healthy dose of self-congratulatory affirmation regarding the choices that they have made. For those who have been guided in those choices by certain religious values, numbers showing the unsurprising practical benefits of living in a two-income household tend to be excitedly, if illegitimately, extended to add metaphysical credence to their “worldview.” 

I've actually been giving some thought to these very issues lately, independently of the discussion sparked by DeParle's article.  One of my many other non-blogging lives involves coordinating an online research group of folks all of whom share the DNA signature of our particular branch of Lindseys.  

Recently, I've been trying to do my bit for the group's research by systematically following each family line in our database down as carefully as possible to the present, gathering documents and photos to provide a paper trail for each family line.  And it's this project that has had me thinking about how families that begin with a certain degree of economic stability and economic entrée tend to build on and add to that stability and entrée for generations, marrying well and staying married.  While the opposite happens in families that start with straitened economic circumstances, little education, and the marital and familial stability that go with economic stress and lack of education.

What has had me thinking about these matters is this: the oldest sister of my great-great grandfather married well.  She married a man who was a well-known and highly respected educator, who represented his county a number of times in the Alabama legislature.

In following the family lines of these families, I've worked my way from oldest sibling, down his/her descendants' lines, to next siblings and down the lines descending from those siblings.  Follow the line of descendants of that oldest sister in the family, and you find remarkable folks: she and her husband produced two well-known judges who made their mark in history by working to put an end to lynchings in their part of Alabama.

The descendants of this line of the family have produced, generation after generation, folks with doctorates, astronomers, women with so much knowledge of physics that they corresponded with Linus Pauling (in fluent French) about theories of atomic particles, math teachers, economists, highly regarded poets, writers of novels focusing on women's rights, electrical engineers, etc.  These were people who traveled.  I routinely find records of their passport applications and listing on ships' passenger lists, coming and going to Europe (sources genealogists use because they sometimes have specific dates and places of birth).

These folks, many of them, lived for periods of time in Europe, raised their children there.  They were, in short, remarkably well-educated, as a group of people descending from one couple, remarkably productive generation after generation.  And their descendants tended to enter into stable, lasting marriages.  The education, economic stability, and social entrée translated into marital and familial stability--a point to which I'll return in a moment, since I think the self-congratulatory Calvinist fable of conservatives turns the facts on their head by pretending that "good" marriages are the initiating factor in economic and social success.

Even when some branches of the family remained close to home in Alabama, marrying and raising children near the old homeplace of their family, they did well as solid, middle-class farmers leading quiet, stable lives on the land.  Living and dying in one place, and raising families that replicated that pattern for generations.

Then the alternative: there's my branch of this same family.  I descend from the second brother of the family, the brother next in line after the oldest sister who married well and whose descendants prospered, on the whole.

In a letter that sister wrote to another sister in 1877--to a sister who, like my ancestor, moved to Louisiana in the late 1840s--the oldest sister happens to mention that she had always had a soft spot in her heart for her brother who is my great-great grandfather, since his life and that of his family had been harder than the lives of their other siblings.  I'm not entirely sure to what the "harder" refers, except that it's clear to me that my branch of the family did not enjoy the level of affluence--and therefore the multigenerational social stability and access to good jobs and sound education--that the older sister and quite a few of the other siblings in this family enjoyed.

By the time the oldest sister wrote that letter in 1877, my ancestor had lost his two oldest sons, one in a Civil War battle, the other immediately after the war when he failed to recover from the hardships he endured in the war.  My ancestor's wife also died of a "bilious" fever at the youngish age of 55 in 1877.  He himself would live only another year.

The family had moved several times after reaching Louisiana, as it sought better land.  As far as I can determine, the family frequently rented rather than bought land, which suggests it did not have money enough to buy as much land as the family would have wished to acquire.  Family stories indicate that during the Civil War, when the parish seat near which they lived was occupied by Union soldiers, the family's cotton gin was confiscated--quite a blow to people whose primary source of income was raising cotton.

Follow the lines descending from this couple, and the story you find is much less illustrious, much less easy, than the story of the descendants of the oldest sister who married well.  Up to the last several generations, it was impossible for most of these descendants to obtain much education.  They did not have the resources or the social entrée to make that possible.  

I've heard my aunt, my father's sister, tell stories with tears in her eyes about how my grandfather spent his entire life lamenting that he worked for people whose minds were far less keen than his own.  But he had no choice except to put up with menial, ill-paying jobs and bosses who were incompetent, because his parents did not have the resources to give their children education beyond the minimal education of country schools in their part of Louisiana.  

My great-grandfather was, admittedly, a country doctor, but like other country doctors of his time and place, he made no money at all through the practice of medicine.  As a devout Methodist, he was in the doctoring business primarily to diminish suffering and heal insofar as he could--and to provide medical attention to poor whites and black folks who were overlooked by other doctors in his community.

Follow the descendants of my branch of this family, and you'll find small farmers, oil-field workers, people who cut timber for a living, barbers, grocers.  None of the European travelers, astronomers, physicists, engineers, judges, poets, writers of the other line.  The descendants of my family did travel: they traveled over to Texas to find work in oil fields, or to cut timber in the thickly forested region along the Texas-Louisiana border, or to buy small businesses in big Texas cities.  Or, like my grandparents, when oil was discovered in south Arkansas, they headed to Arkansas to find any work available in the oil fields and oil industry or the booming new towns created by the discovery of oil.

And there's this: the marital and family lives of my branch of the family seem to have been much messier than those of the well-married sister's descendants.  As you approach the current generations of the various family lines descending from my great-great grandparents, divorces and remarriages tend to become not infrequent.  Charts of the family tree suddenly show children of unmarried mothers who have no father's name, only the mother's surname.  Or they state coyly that the mother bore children named thus and so, conspicuously failing to mention the name of a father, though these children have a surname other than their mother's.  

There seem in some cases to be illegitimate children hidden in the family tree, disguised in records as children of the grandparents, when it appears likely they belonged to an unmarried daughter in the family.  Some families seem to have played games with census takers to hide the actual birthdates of some of these children, along with information about the identity of their parent.

There are sometimes multiple spouses within a single generation--divorce, remarriage, divorce and remarriage again.  Even branches of the family in which the husband entered the Methodist ministry--a recurring pattern in this family that had long had very strong Methodist connections--the lives of the minister's family seem to have been largely itinerant, with moves here and there as bishops transferred the families about to fill spots in faraway places.  As bishops moved them about because they were not the highly educated and socially prominent kind of minsters who obtained cushy jobs in important churches where they remained for life.

It is fairly easy to track the descendants of the well-married oldest sister of the family.  Biographies were published about many of these folks.  I have only to google their names, and the biographies pop up for me to cut and paste from their original sources.

Not so with my branch of the family.  People are elusive, difficult to track, leaving no tracks at all for years.  They disappear from the census, suddenly appearing in unexpected places to which the search for work has sent them--or where they may have gone to escape a marital breakup and to start a new life.  They often disappear because the men in many family lines were inclined to take up soldiering as a way of achieving economic prosperity, and they were moved about to various military posts and sent off to wars.  The most solid biographical information I can find for many of these men is in their military records, particularly when they became petty officers or were--and this was not uncommon--killed in war.

My point in putting these stories of two successive generations of branches of a single family side by side is this: based on what I'm learning as I follow these family lines down several generations, I strongly suspect that the correlation between marital and familial stability and affluence and education is precisely the opposite of what conservative commentators want to make of the data.  It's affluence, education, and social entrée that make for multi-generational marital and familial stability.

Blaming poor people for being poor, and then doubly blaming them for being unable to maintain ideal family lives in the midst of economic struggle, is not merely cruel: it just doesn't get to the heart of the matter.  The challenge in American society, in particular, the challenge of building stable families, is--it has always been--to enable people to have good jobs and to obtain good educations.

Marital and family stability build on sound economic and educational foundations.  Marital and family stability are not, as the perverse Calvinist fable woven all through American culture and much loved by contemporary conservatives has it, the precondition for economic and educational success which come to the devout (as in the stably married) as a reward for good behavior.

Paul VI famously noted that if you want peace, you have to work for justice.  And to American conservatives whose originating story about the city built on a hill is a perverse and debased Calvinist morality tale about the prospering of the righteous and the damning of the unrighteous (an originating story that is not even true to its classic Calvinist roots, as Marilynne Robinson masterfully points out), I think it has to be said: if you really want stable marriages and stable families, work to provide the economic and educational conditions that promote such stability.

And stop blaming the poor for failing to produce stable marriages and families, while you congratulate yourselves for having been chosen and rewarded by God.  That's obscene, when you're working around the clock to prevent job growth, to tear apart social safety nets, to gut the American educational system, to diminish workers' benefits, and to block laws protecting workers' rights.

If you want stable families, work to produce the conditions that yield stable families.

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